A deep dive into the Disney corporation’s long-standing history of appropriating minority cultures.
What is Cultural Commodification?
Cultural commodification is the act of a group of people, usually colonizers or historically privileged people, picking and choosing parts of a minority culture to represent and profit off of. Ultimately, it is orientalism, a term that refers to Western artists demonizing Eastern cultures. In this process, they tend to whitewash, demonize and misrepresent large parts of a culture. Think of a Disney movie like Mulan, or Aladdin. If you ask anyone from the respective cultures that the movies are based on, they’ll tell you that the portrayal of their culture has been bastardized and appropriated. What’s worse, Disney, as a largely white, Western corporation, continues to profit off of these cultures while paying little to no homage to their origin. Sure, these movies may have nostalgic value, especially if you’re Gen Z, but that’s exactly the reason we need to look at them critically.
Disney’s Aladdin: Orientalism at its Worst
The first problem with 1992’s Aladdin is that it is a misconstrued clash of cultures. While being inspired by 1001 Nights and being originally set in China, the movie draws from Indian, Syrian, and Islamic culture, among others. From a white lens, all of these cultures are a monolith, which is untrue. This portrayal of all brown cultures as interchangeable is responsible for dishearteningly harmful stereotypes.
Beyond this, the film is chock-full of caricatures of Middle Eastern and South Asian people. Owing to the largely white production team, most of the background characters in Aladdin are either overly violent and barbaric bearded men or oversexualized brown women belly-dancing. And this action does not exist in a vacuum; Disney’s portrayal has influenced the way brown people are viewed for decades.
Raya and the Last Dragon: Progress or Setbacks?
The most recent Disney movie based on a minority culture is Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy movie inspired by Southeast Asian culture. The three decades between Raya and Aladdin show significant progress – Raya had some SEA voice actors, artists and consultants, and the movie did pay homage to its respective culture. However, Disney’s status as a multinational corporation shows us that minority cultures will always be commodified when capitalism is involved.
According to various SEA writers and critics, the culture in Raya was simply tokenized to sell to a more diverse audience. Sure, there are little nods to Vietnamese foods and Thai fighting styles, but the cultural connection only goes surface level. Raya isn’t connected to her culture at all, and the background feels superficial. It’s still a monolith of more than ten countries and numerous cultures. As real representation, the movie has little value.
Why does it matter?
You might be thinking – shouldn’t we take all the representation we get? Shouldn’t we be applauding Disney for making progress? The fact of the matter is that Disney has done the bare minimum. Without constant pressure to improve and do better in their portrayal of minorities, they will continue exploiting cultures and adding no nuance. It’s possible that even after criticism, Disney will always value profit over authenticity. This is where you ask yourself what’s more important: Gen Z continuing to enable these harmful portrayals for the sake of nostalgia, or Gen Z kickstarting an era of genuine representation in the media.
So what’s the solution? How do we draw the line between representation and approproation? The answer is simple. As Gen Z begins to express our own stories and cultural heritage through various forms of media, from slam poetry to young moviemakers, it’s time to stop relying on Disney for representation. People of colour deserve to see their cultures from an authentic standpoint, and that’s where OwnVoices comes in. OwnVoices is a term that refers to marginalized groups writing about their own experiences, rather than someone from outside the group trying to. The market is full of young POC writing beautiful, vibrant stories that pay homage to their cultures.